Cumann Seandalaiochta agus Staire Phort Lairge

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

A Young Historian's Notebook : 5. Writing History

5. ‘Don’t write what you know, write towards what you want to know’

 Writing can be one of the most solitary pursuits in the world.
If I was to liken it to a sport it probably would be golf. Arnold Palmer said that "Golf is a game of inches. The most important are the six inches between your ears." The same can be said of writing regardless of whether you have to write 500 words or 5,000, a lot is based on how your mind works. 

     For writing history, one of the most important exercises is research. Research is the training for writing like you would practice drills for golf. Practice doesn’t always make perfect but it certainly helps. Research skills are something that can be developed over time and this is particularly relevant when the way we can access information is continually changing. Take for example local newspapers, before you would have to go to your local library and go through the arduous task of exploring microfilm. Now with Irish Newspaper Archives with a few search terms we can find something that may have taken months in a lot faster time. However, rather than viewing this as making research simpler we should see it as allowing us more time to look at other resources. The more information we have, allows us to write with more authority while leading us to more material to distil into an interesting story. 

When you feel you have enough information gathered
then is a good time to start writing up your research. Some people like to write as they’re researching so it is whichever suits you best. What works for one person mightn’t work for someone else. A lot of people would say write what you know about but I like to find out things that I don’t know anything at all about. Such an idea is promoted by the Irish novelist Colum McCann who states that ‘Don’t write what you know, write towards what you want to know.’ I think the great historians be it political, social, military, etc spheres are curious individuals. They are people that thrive for knowledge and understanding. They allow their research to dictate rather than manipulate a story. 

      Some of the subjects that have interested me included Nigerian medical students playing soccer for UCD; a Pakistani squash player who wanted to play for Ireland and a prize-winning daffodil grower living in Kilcohan. I can’t say I had any firm footing in knowing anything about UCD, squash or horticulture but my thirst for learning more helped form the pieces I wrote. Let your curiosity guide your writing. Your research will help piece the story together. One’s enthusiasm will put it across. The latter trait is infectious, when you see someone enjoying themselves or displaying their love of something; you’re caught up in their affection for their subject. 

     You’ve probably noticed that this piece on writing history has more to do with research and preparation than the actual act of writing itself. The reason for this is; there is no advice I can give because everyone is different. Practice is very important and is beneficial to learn your likes and dislikes. 

The best thing to do is to start, once you do that you’ll probably never stop. 

To be continued...

Thursday, July 2, 2020

A Young Historian's Notebook : 4. Reading

     4.  Reading: ‘never judge a book by its cover’  


 The Irish wit and playwright Oscar Wilde once said: 

‘It is what you read when you don't have to that determines what you will be when you can't help it.’ 
The things we take an interest in during our youth can have a great impact on how we live the rest of our lives. One of the greatest gifts my parents imparted in me was the joy of reading. Our house was always filled with plenty of books as my brother Olin and I grew up with stories by Enid Blyton and J.K. Rowling. Adventures and tales capture everyone’s attention at any age, be it murder mysteries to great explorations. Often times the truth is stranger than fiction and that is what makes history so enjoyable, sometimes you just can’t make up what real events occurred in the past. 

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     One of the various books I read as a child was by the author Michael Smith noted for his various studies of polar exploration. Every year on World Book Day there would be a book sale held in the Mount Sion Hall on Barrack Street. I can remember seeing the blue cover with a sketch of Tom Crean on the front and immediately wanted it. I didn’t know anything else about it. The old adage is ‘never judge a book by its cover’, but it was one of the best decisions I ever made. Smith’s book for children on the Kerryman was titled Tom Crean – Iceman and would later be included in the national school curriculum. Those of the same vintage as myself have read that book and it is definitely the work which got me interested in history. The beauty of Michael Smith is that he has written for children and adults and my interests were further fertilized the older I got with his Great Endeavour – Ireland’s Antarctic Explorers. Both of these books could be used as signposts in my own learning and the development of my interests. 

     When I was in 6th class it coincided with the  90th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising and there was no shortage of books to whet my appetite. My uncle Raymond Murphy (who introduced me to the Waterford Archaeological & Historical Society) bought me Dan Breen’s My Fight for Irish Freedom which got me obsessed with the tumultuous events of what we now term the Revolutionary Decade. When released in 1924, Breen’s book was advertised for boys as a raucous adventure story through the War of Independence. This would be later reflected by the book being re-published by Kilkenny woman Rena Dardis and Anvil Press. It certainly captured my attention when I was 12 as I wanted to learn more and more about the period. This would shape my interests in secondary school and university. 


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